Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Nation's 1st Homeless Bill of Rights Slow to Cause Change in Rhode Island

The new law prohibits landlords and employers from discriminating against the homeless when they apply for apartments or jobs, and affirms their right to be in public spaces such as parks and libraries.

By Jake Grovum

Just two miles separate the Rhode Island State House from Amos House, a soup kitchen and service center that’s helped hundreds of thousands since opening in 1976.

But it feels farther. Amos House sits amid a maze of narrow streets lined with subsidized housing and empty storefronts, past a string of convenience and liquor stores where homeless Rhode Islanders frequently gather. It’s near one of Providence’s ubiquitous homeless shelters -- rossroads -- where battered women seek refuge and drug dealers often congregate outside.

Advocates were looking to close the gap between Rhode Island’s homeless and the rest of the state’s citizenry when they convinced state lawmakers to approve the nation’s first Homeless Bill of Rights this past summer. The new law prohibits landlords and employers from discriminating against the homeless when they apply for apartments or jobs, and affirms their right to be in public spaces such as parks and libraries. The broader idea was that outlawing prejudice against homeless people would eliminate the stigma that surrounds homelessness.

The law, backed by a coalition of activists, academics and attorneys, may become a national model. But months after its passage, there is frustration over the slow pace of change. Some advocates still are not sure how they can use the law to fix lingering problems, while others worry that their legislative success has curbed the state’s appetite for more homeless aid.

On a raw rainy afternoon several weeks ago, last summer’s legislative triumph seemed far away for 48-year-old Stephen Patrick, a former restaurant chef who once worked full time at $13 an hour but has been homeless since suffering a seizure and heart attack last year. “It’s getting colder out, and I don’t want to be on the street,” Patrick said, eating lunch at a cramped Amos House. “I just need a house, bad.”

“I’m just trying get by,” he says, “by any means possible.”

‘The Fight’s Not Over Yet’

In simple terms, the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights affirms that the homeless have the same rights as everyone else.

It bars local authorities from ejecting homeless people from public spaces such as parks, libraries and public transportation. It says employers and government agencies can’t discriminate against people who don’t have a permanent address.

But the real power of the law may be its utility in the courtroom. For example, advocates can use it to sue a Rhode Island city or town that imposes an ordinance banning “loitering” in public parks.

As Linda Tashbook of the University of Pittsburgh law school says, it eliminates the need for advocates to parse arguments or find compelling stories. “With a Homeless Bill of Rights, the claim can be clear and simple,” she says. “There is no need to wait for a new incident of victimization.”

What the law doesn’t do, though, is guarantee food or shelter. Early versions of the bill focused on a “Right to Housing,” but advocates figured that wouldn’t pass. The scaled-back bill has spawned some disillusionment.

“We fought hard to get the Homeless Bill of Rights,” says John Joyce, who was formerly homeless but now works as an outreach coordinator, “and I’ll be damned if we let someone [walk all over] it.”

Joyce was speaking at a recent meeting of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project in a small chapel in downtown Providence’s Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. There was a lot on the agenda: The election, colder October weather, the uptick in people on the streets.

But the Bill of Rights was a central focus. Advocates distributed printed cards detailing rights covered under the law. Participants also discussed whether they could use the law to thwart an attempt by local officials to evict charitable food trucks from nearby Kennedy Plaza. For-profit food trucks are allowed to sell food nearby.

That conflict, some say, could soon lead to the first lawsuit under the Bill of Rights. “We’re looking for one we can win,” says John Freitas, a self-described “frustrated” outreach coordinator.

But the food-truck issue pales in comparison to more pressing concerns: the need to expand and improve overcrowded shelters; the need for more money for homeless programs.

“The fight’s not over yet,” Joyce says, telling the group he’d like activists to show up en masse at an upcoming State House hearing on homelessness. Another idea is to file a lawsuit against the state over poor conditions at one particularly dilapidated shelter.

“Wouldn’t that be something?” he says. “The governor signs the Homeless Bill of Rights and then gets sued under it.”

‘Those People Were Living Like Animals’

No lawmaker was more important to the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights than Senator John Tassoni Jr., a Democrat from Smithfield, Rhode Island, about 10 miles outside Providence.

Long a safety-net advocate, Tassoni joined the Bill of Rights coalition after a visit to one notorious shelter, Harrington Hall in the Providence suburb of Cranston. He found deplorable conditions: overcrowding, triple-stacked bunks and just two toilets and two showers for more than 100 people.

“I was astonished, amazed, disgusted, sickened, all of the above,” Tassoni says. “Those people were living like animals.”

He emerged with a two-pronged agenda: Clean up existing shelters and help advocates enact their Homeless Bill of Rights. The first would make a practical improvement. The second, Tassoni reasoned, would hopefully “eliminate the stigma and the disrespect that some people have for the homeless.”

Lawmakers approved the bill on the last day of the legislative session, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, signed it shortly thereafter. Chafee also ordered a cleanup at Harrington Hall.

But in the months since, progress has been slow. Homeowners near Harrington Hall are pushing back, saying they’d rather see the center closed than improved. The issue has permeated local elections, where one candidate has called homeless people “animals” in opposing the shelter.

At the same time, there are still reports of local harassment, of bus drivers blowing past the homeless at bus stops. Many frustrations that existed before remain. Tassoni is planning hearings in the coming weeks on shelter conditions and winter housing concerns.

Meanwhile, the advocacy continues.

“It’s just going to be a big battle,” Frank Nolan, who was homeless but now does outreach, says of the Harrington Hall project. “It’s working,” he adds of the new law, “but it’s not working.”

A Different Direction

Despite its shortcomings, Rhode Island’s law stands in sharp contrast to what is going on in many other states. A year ago, a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) found more than half of the 234 cities surveyed had ordinances against loitering or panhandling in certain public places. A third of those laws prohibited sitting or lying down. In this sense, the Bill of Rights is a powerful countermeasure.

“So much of our work has been defensive for such a long time,” Jeremy Rosen of the NLCHP says. “Always playing defense can be dispiriting.”

With that in mind, advocates want to take Rhode Island’s success national. Tassoni didn’t seek re-election this year and is considering a paid position with a national advocacy group to travel the country and lobby for similar measures. Tassoni, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project all will be honored at the NLCHP McKinney-Vento Awards this month in Washington.

‘It Was Like a Dream’

Joyce, the homeless advocate, may be frustrated over the lack of progress in Rhode Island since the law was passed, but he still praises the effort and hopes it will spread to other states.

“We want to spread this; it was one of our objectives even before it became law,” he says. “It was like a dream: Imagine if we get this passed and other advocates pick this up and do the same.”

At Amos House on that recent afternoon, there were others who were optimistic. Gregory Harrell, who was homeless for four years and now volunteers at another shelter, said even though he’s not sure what changes might come, the measure helped remove the disrepute surrounding the homeless.

“It’s just a stigma, it’s a bad stigma,” he says, standing in Amos House’s cafeteria, wiping away tears. “Nobody should ever look down on people.”

Sonny Ramsey, a coordinator at Amos House, agreed. Taking a break from his busy schedule and overcrowded waiting room filled with families looking for help, he said he was hopeful.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s gonna change a lot of lives.”

Still, he wasn’t sure how. He admits not following the law as closely as he’d like. The reason? His packed caseload, a testament to remaining problems. Helping just one slice of the still-sizable homeless population of Rhode Island doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

“I’m swamped here,” he says. “But I’m just positive it’s going to do some good.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
Special Projects